NATCHITOCHES – Visitation is Friday evening and the funeral is Saturday afternoon for Jerry Pierce, considered “The Father of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.”
Pierce was Hall of Fame chairman from 1971-90 and was the catalyst for the creation of a permanent display in Northwestern State University’s basketball arena, Prather Coliseum as he was a university administrator. Pierce spearheaded development of an annual induction ceremony and served as master of ceremonies and coordinated all induction elections and events until he reluctantly gave up the role in April 1990 when he was promoted to vice president of external affairs.
“Simply put, there wouldn’t be a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame without him,” said Doug Ireland, who became LSHOF chair when Pierce stepped aside. “The framework he established for our annual induction weekend is still in place, and our operating policies and selection process that he helped create remain intact today. Only because he nurtured the Hall with style, grace, charm and creativity, and ensured the university’s strong support continued, has the Hall evolved to the point that today Louisiana has a Sports Hall of Fame, and a museum, that ranks among the very best anywhere.”
Pierce, Northwestern’s executive vice president and a professor of journalism, served NSU in various leadership capacities inside and outside athletics, died Tuesday at age 83 after a brief illness. He was assisting Dr. Marcus Jones, the ninth Northwestern president that benefitted from Pierce’s skills and knowledge.
Visitation will be from 5-8 p.m. Friday with a 2 p.m. funeral service Saturday at First Baptist Church in Natchitoches, located at 508 2nd Street.
His far-reaching impact touched not only the NSU campus and Natchitoches, but reached statewide and beyond in sports, culture, state government and higher education. His involvement with Northwestern began when he arrived from his hometown of Springhill as a student trainer for the NSC football team in 1957. He graduated with a journalism degree in 1961, then worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for four-plus years, rising to the position of executive sports editor at age 24, before returning to Natchitoches and Northwestern as sports information director and news bureau director in September 1965.
He never left, working for 57 years, mostly in a variety of administrative roles overseeing athletics and external relations along with media relations, marketing and branding, and governmental relations. He was a pivotal figure in the wildly popular 1989 hit movie “Steel Magnolias” being filmed entirely in Natchitoches, starting a tourism surge that is still vibrant today and has been transformational to the downtown historic district and the local economy.
“There are few, if any, other people who have made such a profound, lasting impact on Natchitoches, on Northwestern State University, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, and countless lives,” said Ireland.
“It’s not just the last 57 years he’s lived here, working at Northwestern, or the transformational 19 years he nurtured the Hall of Fame in the midst of his NSU career. It’s the passion, ingenuity, vision, and joy that he sustained from start to finish. So much good has happened, and exists, here and truly, around our state, due greatly to his influence and involvement.”
Ronnie Rantz, CEO/President of the LSHOF Foundation for the last six years, was grateful for his relationship with Pierce and his friendship.
“I had known Mr. Pierce casually before I came on board with the Hall of Fame, and quickly learned he was deeply committed to helping us,” said Rantz. “Every conversation we had was fun and productive. If needed, he could move mountains, and he was willing to do anything he could at the university, in the community and around the state. He was very proud of the Hall, of the years he spent developing it, and of the friends he made along that path. It’s been impressive as I’ve traveled around Louisiana and beyond that as I say I’m with the Hall of Fame, how many people ask about him, and have glowing comments about him.”
Since departing his official role with the Hall, Pierce stayed deeply engaged with athletics in his vice presidential role at Northwestern.
“This is a major loss to the institution as well as to Northwestern State athletics,” Jones said. “Jerry has been a part of the fabric of the institution since the mid-60s and has done so much to further the institution and athletics in particular. His impact in the political landscape, higher education and athletics is something rare, and it will be missed.”
Upon his return to Natchitoches in 1965, Pierce spent two years as the university’s sports information director, re-establishing his deep athletic ties to NSU and the state. He quickly moved up the university’s administrative ladder, remaining involved in athletics with oversight and management roles that grew in stature.
From his return to campus in 1965 until Tuesday, Pierce’s imprint and impact on Northwestern State athletics was never-ending.
“NSU has lost one of the most enduring and engaging figures in its 138-year history,” said former NSU Director of Athletics Greg Burke, who led the department for more than 25 years while reporting to Pierce. “Jerry was many things to many people – faculty member, administrator, mentor, orator, writer, arbitrator, leader, confidante, humorist, family man and most importantly, a friend. His influence over the years was evident through success in so many areas vital to the mission of the university, including fund-raising, athletics and alumni relations to name a few. His passing leaves an irreplaceable void at his beloved alma mater.”
The combination of Pierce and Burke oversaw arguably the most successful quarter-century run in Northwestern State athletics.
The Pierce-Burke partnership produced 107 NCAA postseason individual competitors, 94 national awards honoring academic and athletic success, 25 NCAA postseason appearances, 25 Southland Conference championships and 20 Southland Conference Tournament championships.
His influence spread across the landscape of the Southland Conference once NSU entered the league 35 years ago.
“Mr. Pierce was a tremendous asset and a go-to for anything I needed insight on within the UL System or that was percolating in the legislature or anywhere on the Louisiana political scene,” said former Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett, who served in that role from 2002 until earlier this year. “Jerry was always connected and beneficial to myself, certainly. He helped me make some decisions in my role as commissioner in a way that helped the conference. It is a huge loss.
“I don’t know that we will ever see anyone like him again in that role. We are all better for having known him and for working with him.”
During his tenure as an NSU administrator, Pierce’s employee tree stretched high and wide. Among those whose administrative careers brought them to Natchitoches are current Auburn Director of Athletics John Cohen and Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey.
Cohen got his head coaching start with the NSU baseball program while Sankey spent two-and-a-half years (1989-91) in a variety of roles at Northwestern State. Sankey began his NSU career as an administrative intern and head golf coach and later became NSU’s first director of compliance and academic services. He moved to the Southland as its compliance officer and became Southland Commissioner for nearly seven years before joining the SEC and eventually moving into the commissioner’s chair in 2015.
“Jerry was an important contributor for decades at Northwestern State,” Sankey said in a statement. “I enjoyed my relationship with him and admired his longtime service, commitment and dedication to the university. Jerry will be missed but certainly will be long remembered.”
Maintaining a presence around and in the operation of Northwestern State athletics was part of his job description. Pierce’s passion for athletics literally was on display in Prather Coliseum for four decades.
While those artifacts moved to the palatial Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum in downtown Natchitoches in 2013, Pierce’s contributions were apparent. In 2000, he became a Hall of Famer himself, inducted as a winner of the LSWA’s Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism. At the museum’s grand opening, he helped cut the ribbon, with Shaquille O’Neal photo-bombing the group.
In June, Pierce was honored during the 50th anniversary of the Hall’s time in Natchitoches, receiving a standing ovation from the capacity crowd at the Natchitoches Events Center. It was a fitting tribute for a man who was named one of 20 athletic administrators and coaches named as “Who’s Who In Louisiana Sports” by the Times-Picayune in 1993, standing alongside New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, LSU director of athletics Joe Dean, then-LSU basketball coach Dale Brown and legendary Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson.
“It did not take long after arriving in Natchitoches for me to see what Jerry Pierce meant to Northwestern State University and its athletic program,” current NSU Director of Athletics Kevin Bostian said. “The same can be said for what he meant to Natchitoches and to the state of Louisiana as a whole. His impact was indelible and the legacy he left will be felt for many generations.”
During his nearly six-decade-long NSU tenure, Pierce helped generations of Northwestern State student-athletes and was a key part of many milestone moments, including helping NSU become the first Louisiana institution to offer women full athletic scholarships in 1975 and paving the way for the NSU athletic program attain Division I membership two years later.
He helped steer Northwestern into conference affiliations with the Gulf South (1972), Trans-America (1980), Gulf Star (1983) and Southland (since 1987).
Pierce earned inclusion in the N-Club Hall of Fame as he was presented the N-Club Leadership Award in 2018.
The award was fitting, given Pierce’s reputation across campus and the Natchitoches community.
“I would not have been athletic director at Northwestern State if it weren’t for Jerry Pierce,” said Tynes Hildebrand, a former Demon basketball coach who was NSU’s director of athletics from 1983-96. “He went to (NSU President) Dr. (Joseph) Orze and said, ‘A.L. Williams is leaving the AD/head football coach position to go to Louisiana Tech, and the guy you need to hire is Tynes Hildebrand.’”
Hildebrand – a 2014 LSHOF inductee as the winner of the Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award — remained appreciative to his longtime friend, whom he first crossed paths with “in the early 1960s,” when Pierce worked with Clayton’s legendary NSU football teams.
Throughout his 13-year tenure as AD, Hildebrand relied on Pierce as a sounding board and to deliver his messages in a concise, direct way.
“When I had problems, I would go to Jerry,” Hildebrand said. “All of those years, I could go to Jerry for advice because Jerry’s advice was always good. That was everybody he dealt with.
“He could advise the presidents well. He could advise the VPs well. He could advise the ADs very well. I would use him a lot when I needed to talk to my coaches. He was very good with that. I would tell him what I’d like him to talk about and he would deliver it in a way that was very direct but very good for them.”